POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE — To hear Kevin Lunny tell it, he’s just a little guy, draining his life’s savings to stand up to a heartless federal agency bent on closing down his family’s oyster farm here.
It’s a compelling tale, a years-long soap opera replete with allegations of scientific misconduct and government overreach. Tea party activists have taken up his cause, citing it as an example of government quashing free enterprise and environmentalism run amok. Lunny also has the support of powerhouse conservative law firms representing him pro bono, and Cause of Action, a Washington, D.C.-based government watchdog group with ties to the conservative Koch brothers.
Others, however, don’t buy his story. They say Lunny and some of his supporters have distorted what is a very simple case: The owners of the oyster farm north of San Francisco agreed 40 years ago to shut down in 2012, and Lunny is trying to break the contract.
“This thing has been hijacked by people with different agendas and manufactured narratives,” said Tom Strickland, former assistant secretary of the Interior. “When someone suggests that this is ‘the government versus the little guy,’ I think the question should be looked at in reverse. Who is looking out for the interest of individual Americans, who is looking out for the interests of taxpayers?”
In 2005, the Lunny family bought the oyster farm in Drakes Estero, which includes the tidal area where explorer Sir Francis Drake is believed to have made landfall 430 years ago. With the purchase, the family signed on to an existing 40-year agreement with the National Park Service stating that the business would cease operations last fall and the area would convert to marine wilderness, as Congress intended.
From the beginning, Lunny made clear to the Park Service that he was interested in staying on, but Interior’s solicitor ruled the agency had no legal basis to allow that.
The often-ugly debate reached a crescendo three months ago when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar elected not to extend Lunny’s permit to operate in Point Reyes National Seashore. The operation is scheduled to be removed next month, clearing the way for Drakes Estero, a dramatic coastal sweep of five bays in Marin County, to become the first marine wilderness in the Lower 48 states.
Lunny filed a lawsuit to force the government to extend his lease, but it failed in federal court. He said he is appealing to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
“To my mind, the issue really centers on the original deal,” said Lynn Scarlett, an assistant secretary of the Interior under George W. Bush. “When this area was designated as a national park unit, the Congress and all those who were engaged struck a deal. A deal’s a deal.”
Lunny casts the debate in different terms. He says that the government is being unfair and that his protracted fight to stay has devastated his family. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who wrote two bills to help Lunny continue operating in the park, wrote Salazar to say that because of the oyster farm’s impending closure, Lunny’s family is “facing financial ruin.”
The family does have other sources of income. They run a cattle ranch on federal land and own a paving and construction business. Lunny’s legal fight is being waged by lawyers working for free, five of whom joined him at his last court appearance. He is soliciting online donations via the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and has a shellfish industry lobbyist on his payroll as a consultant.
Records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the federal government has extended generous subsidies to the Lunny family for decades. The extended family has leased more than 1,100 acres, where it raises cattle within the park. The grazing rate Lunny and other ranchers pay is about one-third the amount ranchers are charged on adjacent private land.
The Lunnys’ lease includes a three-bedroom house, a second residence and a bunkhouse, all owned by the federal government but leased by the family. Lunny pays $2,200 a month for the 1,100 acres and the buildings — about what renters nearby pay to lease a single-family house on a small plot of private land.
The Park Service, under political pressure to help Lunny, recently spent $50,000 to replace the roofs on two of the family’s leased buildings. Other federal seashore tenants are required to pay for their own home maintenance.
The Park Service, however, has made mistakes in the case that have given ammunition to the Lunnys’ supporters. In 2007, a seashore scientist wrote a flawed report that suggested Lunny’s farm harmed harbor seals.
The Park Service acknowledged the errors and retracted the study, but the episode gave credibility to claims that the park was using “junk science” to force Lunny out.
At Feinstein’s urging, the Park Service commissioned outside reviews of its ongoing study of Drakes Estero. The effort to resolve the scientific debate has morphed into a multimillion-dollar morass of scientific studies and investigations by Interior’s inspector general, the National Academy of Sciences and the Marine Mammal Commission, paid for by taxpayers.
The results: In some instances the Park Service conclusions overreached, in some instances they were correct, and most of the time it was impossible to determine the accuracy of any claim without more study.
Apart from his trouble with the park, Lunny has a history of not complying with California Coastal Commission orders. For six years, Lunny’s farm has failed to acquire the appropriate state permits to operate in a coastal zone.
The Coastal Commission earlier this month issued its second cease-and-desist order to the farm. “I find that this is one of the most egregious, egregious violations that I have seen,” Commissioner Esther Sanchez said in a hearing.
Now that Drakes Bay Oyster Co.'s closure looms, the farm’s plight has become a cause for groups with disparate agendas. Some represent the interests of the shellfish industry, which seeks to operate in protected waters up and down the coast. Some favor more commercial activities in national parks, and others espouse virulently anti-government views.
Lunny’s supporters are threatening to stage protests and even blockade the road if authorities are required to escort Lunny and his staff from the seashore.
Lunny, a genial and quiet man, said he doesn’t want to be associated with “right-wing land rights and anti-government groups.”
“This has spun out of control like none of us would ever have imagined,” Lunny said. “Some of these groups came out of the woodwork” after Salazar decided against extending the lease. “All of a sudden we have some new friends.”